Once Upon a Time in America

Year of release: 1984              Directed by Sergio Leone.                  Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Joe Pesci.

“I believe in America.” “America was born in the streets.” Wrong movies, admittedly, but that grand and tragic mythos is the focus of Sergio Leone’s beautifully sprawling epic Once Upon a Time in America. The title itself suggests that grandiose myth-making, which the characters write both for themselves and for their country.

The film opens with the shattering of that myth. David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has witnessed the murder of the three surviving members of his gang, and he is on the run from several hitmen. The world of gangs, deals with cops, and profits from the speakeasies of the Great Depression which he worked so hard to build for himself has turned on him. Not only that, but the funds which the gang had put aside for all of their use were stolen as well. Resigned to his fate, Noodles leaves Manhattan, intending to end the myth which he lived for so long.

Then, with a jump cut, we are no longer in the era of prohibition, opium dens, jazz, and ragtime, but that of Lennon and McCartney, television, and respectable businesses. However, this age is just as quintessential a slice of the American myth as the ’30’s, and Noodles’ memories of “Yesterday” continue to haunt him as he adjusts to the next chapter of America. The nonlinear editing between 1968, 1932, and 1920 connects past, present, and future as inseparable parts of the country America has become – born in the streets when the teenage Noodles and his gang stood up to rivals and blackmailed corrupt cops; growing up to side with unions, threaten corrupt businessmen, rob them, and rape their secretaries if need be; and reaching a maturity where anyone can achieve prosperity with enough hard work and determination, as long as they have some corrupt politicians in the palm of their hand.

It’s an unflattering picture, and it sounds crazy to think it will last (and in the 21st century, coupled with recent events, it seems more inevitable than ever that it will fail), but Noodles and especially his friend and partner Max (James Woods) are determined to get all they can from it as long as they believe in it. The crumbling of that belief occurs at ostensibly different points for both of them, and the subsequent rift between them that results is reflected not only in Max’s desire to pursue more dangerous work with ruthless gangsters like Frankie (Joe Pesci), but in Noodles’ waking up from the American Dream to replace it with an opium dream of a forgetful haze. As Max becomes intoxicated with his American dream, Noodles’ dream turns into a nightmare, at which point he wakes up to find a new dream.

However, is it possible to wake up? In the final confrontation, Noodles and Max recount strikingly different memories of the same incident that brought their belief in the America to a crashing end. Nonetheless, the dream and the myth they had elaborately written for themselves had become so widespread, so entrenched in the American mind that both characters were forced to become new characters in their own myth, which had grown well beyond their control and left them victims of fate, not dissimilar to the random fates they left for a next generation when they needed to scare a police chief.

As Noodles, De Niro is far less sympathetic than the young Sicilian gangster he played ten years prior to this, but his mission to control the streets of his New York neighborhood while turning against anything that offered him a more innocent life is not much different. As Noodles’ first 11 year old love says, she could love him, if he wouldn’t always be a two-bit punk. The culmination of their relationship may be the most tragic, and is certainly most horrifying scene in the movie for the microcosmic way that it shows how Noodles’ belief in his own desires above all else runs roughshod over not only institutions but other people as well.

Whereas The Godfather is primarily interested in the ramifications of corruption on its once moral protagonist, Once Upon a Time in America lacks that upright protagonist and is interested in how his participation in the American mythos makes him more corrupt. Instead of focusing on the moral fall of an individual and the dissolution of a family as Coppola did, Leone focuses on the dissolution of the American dream itself and the consequences for those who imbibe it. It’s debatable which tragedy is greater, but the far reaching consequences of greed, working to get ahead at any cost, and loyalty to ideas over human beings receives a more damning indictment here. And that is no more apparent than in the ironic use of “God Bless America” which frames the film.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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My Cousin Rachel

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Roger Michell.                Starring Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, and Pierfrancesco Favino.

Compare and contrast the following sentences. “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” “Did she; or didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” One of them is the opening to a masterpiece of 20th century literature, which brilliantly sets the stage for a world balanced between beauty and menace with an aura of perpetual ambiguity, wracked by guilt, inner torment, and memories. The other is the opening line of a film adapted from the Wikipedia summary of the same novel.

I will say right now, that on a technical level, this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is not a bad film. A couple clumsy edits aside, the cinematography is (mostly) gorgeous, the production design is exquisite, the acting is competent, and the directing passable. None of that makes up for the utter ruination of the novel, which as full disclosure, is one of my three favorite books.

The problems begin with the vapid opening line, which heavy-handedly suggests the conclusion of the story rather than introducing us to Philip (Sam Claflin) and giving us a background to make him sympathetic even as he makes reckless decisions throughout the course of the story. That background, which takes nearly eighty pages in the novel, is bull dozed through in about ten minutes as a prologue before the title card. That pacing barely relents for the remainder of the film.

We see throughout the film that Philip is a rash imprudent man, but since the film races through the story with equal recklessness, we never learn why. Thus we never understand the full tragedy or motivation behind his often conflicting actions.

We learn Philip was orphaned as a young boy, and his wealthy older cousin Ambrose took him in, despite the church ladies insisting a young boy needs to grow up around a woman, which is a hurried way of acknowledging Philip’s sexism and difficulty in relating to women. We do not see any of Philip’s fond or troubled memories with Ambrose that we do in the book, and the film completely omits the crucial detail that Philip worshiped Ambrose, embodying both his virtues and his faults.

The film then rushes to its next plot point to check off: Ambrose fell ill and went to Italy to recover. There, despite his self-affirmed perpetual bachelorhood, he fell in love with Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and married her. Then, Ambrose wrote one more letter to England in which he implored Philip to save him from Rachel who was poisoning him. Philip set out for Italy immediately, consumed with hatred for his murderous witch of a cousin, only to learn Ambrose had died of a brain tumor that made him paranoid and irrational.

Shortly afterwards Rachel comes to England to meet Philip, and when he sees her, his resentment instantly melts. In the scene where they first meet, Weisz embodies du Maurier’s title character so perfectly, that for a brief moment, I was almost swept away along with Philip and tempted to forgive the film its faults, but then it went and butchered her most crucial scenes by rushing through them, which undermined the gravity of Philip’s former antagonism.

The biggest problem with this film is that it seems to think that fidelity to the novel merely consists of hitting all the major plot points. With that it fundamentally misunderstands Daphne du Maurier. No one reads a du Maurier novel primarily for its plot. The biggest weakness of her breakthrough novel Jamaica Inn is the thin and kind of predictable plot. Nonetheless, that novel was successful because of its foreboding atmosphere, generating sympathy for its conflicted protagonist thrown into unethical situations against her will, and because of the way it powerfully painted the Cornish countryside as simultaneously dangerous and liberating. Foreboding atmosphere, morally compromised yet sympathetic protagonists, and a love for the Cornish countryside by the sea are the three things that made du Maurier the great writer she was. This film is interested in none of them.

It needs to be mentioned that Philip’s relationship with Louise (Holliday Grainger), the daughter of his godfather and estate manager Mr. Kendall (Iain Glen), and her unreturned affection for him is also glazed over, which makes her presence at later climactic scenes irrelevant. More damningly, it makes the film’s coda, which is not in the book, appalling not only for the way it downplays the horror of the story, but also for its sexist treatment of Louise and exoneration of Philip.

The greatest strength of du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel is the perpetual ambiguity that hangs over the story. Did Rachel murder Ambrose, or did he have a brain tumor? Is she just careless with money, or is she hiding dark secrets for which she needs money? And finally, is she plotting to murder Philip, or not? The film takes very clear sides, so clear that the attempt to turn the tables is completely unbelievable. In stark contrast, the book builds its atmosphere of horror and tragedy by constantly allowing the reader to second guess himself. That sort of subtlety is as foreign to the film as Rachel’s mysterious Italian friend Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) is to England.

The last half hour of my screening was permeated with snickering from the audience. I could hardly blame them; the plot points which made sense in the novel, considering the guilt and uncertainty plaguing Philip, seemed ludicrous here with the film’s one sided approach to the central conflict. If there ever was an example of how to ruin a piece of source material while adhering to its major plot points, this would be it.

There will be worse movies I see this year; there have already been worse movies released. There will be none that I hate more than My Cousin Rachel.

 

Personal Recommendation: D-

Content advisory: Two non-graphic sexual encounters, an anachronistic obscenity, and a mild aura of menace.                 MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

 

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.             Starring Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley.

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I am not the biggest fan of Hans Zimmer – I often find his music too heavy handed and repetitive, but I have always enjoyed the work he and Klaus Badelt did for the initial Pirates of the Caribbean. The cues altered between ebullience and solemnity in a fittingly cartoonish way with simple, traditional orchestrations to match. The score for Dead Men Tell No Tales is composed by Geoff Zanelli but still utilizes all of Zimmer’s main themes; however, those themes are re-orchestrated so that the once light-hearted soundtrack is now overwrought with plodding cues that are too loud, too thick, and sadly rather lifeless.

It’s a fitting metaphor for this franchise.

Nowhere is that more apparent than Depp. I am someone who will defend his work in Curse of the Black Pearl as one of his three greatest performances and think he absolutely should have won the Oscar that year. In this film, he half-heartedly phones in a wooden parody of that performance from fourteen years ago, which is probably an all time career low for him (and yes, I’m considering Alice in Wonderland).

The rest of the cast has varying levels of success at finding the right level of camp for the material. Javier Bardem passably hisses his way through an undead Spanish pirate hunter, but for undead nemeses hunting Jack, both Bill Nighy and Geoffrey Rush did it better. Rush is back briefly for an attempt at nostalgia, as are Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. None of them are given anything to do, other than remind us how much better they were in the first film. As the new young love-struck couple, Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario are so obsessed with hammering home their one respective character trait that they move from no chemistry to negative chemistry as they actively make sure we have no interest in whether they succeed or not.

The plot revolves around Thwaites and Scodelario, as he is looking for the Trident of Poseidon to lift the curse on his father, and she wants to solve the map her unknown father left for her, which leads to the same place. For some mysterious reason, they also need Captain Jack Sparrow to get there, but he, his compass, and the Black Pearl have no bearing on the outcome at all. How they discover they need one another is never really explained. His name is Henry Turner (son of Will and Elizabeth) and she is Carina Smyth, a progressive woman of science who repeatedly insists she is not a witch, but an astronomer and horologist. It shouldn’t need explaining how the latter is received among pirates.

N.B. The word horologist didn’t exist until the 19th Century, about 70 or so years after this film. So with an anachronism like that, someone probably should check to see if she weighs the same as a duck, but I digress.

In terms of pacing, this one probably slightly improves on the previous film considering that it moves through its nonsensical plot at a slightly less lifeless rate, but on the other hand that plot is a blender full of ideas and characters with no real continuity. I suppose I also need to mention there are zombie sharks, and the film even makes that boring.

To be fair, there are brief lines and gags which recall the fun of the original, but those are few and far between.

At least we can say ending The Beatles is not the worst thing Sir Paul ever did.

 

Personal Recommendation: C-

Content advisory: Fairly intense action violence, gruesome imagery, and some off-colour humor.              MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

 

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Cléo from 5 to 7

Year of release: 1962              Directed by Agnès Varda.                  Starring Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dominique Davray, and Dorothée Blanck.

Considering the techniques used in Cléo from 5 to 7, the film opens with two anomalies: a sequence shot in color and use of a God’s point of view shot. After the opening scene in which Cléo (Corinne Marchand) visits a fortune teller and asks to learn her fate via Tarot cards, we never see either technique again. The camera angle enables us to focus solely on the Tarot cards, which both Cléo and the fortune teller stare at intently, and which Cléo believes will determine whether her cancer test comes back positive or negative in two hours.

Staring or gazing, not only at others but ourselves as well, or even at mundane objects such as hats. It’s what everyone does, either intentionally or not, and the characters in Cléo from 5 to 7 are no exception. Beginning with the staring at the Tarot cards, director Angès Varda allows the viewer to gaze along with the characters. As soon as Cléo leaves, she stops by parallel mirrors and stares at infinite repetitions of herself, convinced that she has cancer, and taking solace that she still has her beauty, placing herself under the same ruthless examination that the world does.

The next 84 minutes play out in real time as Cléo prepares to hear the results of her biopsy, seeking sympathy from friends, lovers, and coworkers but receiving none. As her assistant Angèle (Dominique Davray) tells her, “Men will think she’s faking her illness for attention.” Angèle sees nothing wrong with this, accepting the notion that men gaze at women for their beauty as something women should relish. As a famous pop singer, Cléo has long relished this sort of attention, but faced with her impending morality, interactions with her boyfriend, songwriters, and even her assistant become trying.

Then she visits her friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) who poses nude for a sculpting class. It’s the ultimate example of someone subjecting themselves to another’s gaze, and yet these artists clearly see her as an entire person and are not gazing for their own satisfaction. As might be expected, Cléo says she is way too self-conscious to be comfortable with nude modeling, but Dorothée says it is a joyful, liberating experience in which she can accept her body as it is, feeling neither proud nor ashamed of it, throwing off the gaze of society.

It’s the most clarifying moment in the film, in which we’re reminded why we gaze at any work of art: to see an entire picture inviting us beyond ourselves into a greater understanding of the whole. We see Cleo’s fear of death, the gaze she has subjected herself to, and her superstitious rituals for luck. It’s telling that she starts breaking those superstitions once she meets Dorothée. As Dorothée says, she doesn’t find nude modeling immodest; the transparency reveals truth.

And Varda herself does not let the viewer forget that he is gazing as well, challenging him to reconsider the way he looks at anything, not just the film itself. Several well placed cuts break the 30-degree rule, notably reminding us that we are gazing through the eye of the camera. For the hour and a half in which Cléo learns a new way to see herself and the world, Varda invites the viewer to do so as well.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Suggested Audience: Adults

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The Wall

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Doug Liman.                   Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Laith Nakli.

Two soldiers, a sniper, and a crumbling stone wall. As Scott Renshaw pointed out, this scenario basically writes and films itself, which makes the occasional stumbles all the more frustrating. Even with those stumbles, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) does a good job of milking this premise, crafting a tense thriller in which a cat and mouse game is set against the backdrop of the “won” Iraq War.

Criticism of the Iraq War and the notion that there could be any victory from that mess abounds throughout the film. The first title card tells us in 2007 the USA declared victory and the war was over, but the irony and dishonesty of that claim is highlighted by the opening shot of two soldiers camouflaged as they observe an oil pipeline where soldiers had been ambushed by an attack. Later, when the sniper hacks their radio signal, he asks them what they’re still doing in his country if the war is over. Finally, the closing shot will remain one of the most surprising conclusions of any film this year, and it strongly reinforces the notion that the Iraq War is unwinnable.

The film’s politics are unmistakable, but they are never heavy handed, and they provide added tension to the confrontation between Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the unseen sniper (Laith Nakli). Less successful is the backstory for Sgt. Isaac which is hinted at throughout the film, but when it’s made explicit in the last act, it comes across as a half-baked attempt at guilt and trauma which adds nothing to the psychological and physical standoff between the soldier and the sniper.

The other major misstep of the film is the scriptwriter Dwain Worrell’s decision to make the sniper a genius psychopath more knowledgeable than Hannibal Lecter who knows everything going on inside Isaac’s head, has orchestrated his plan to the last unexpected detail, and is fazed by literally nothing. Eventually, the characterization begins to approach caricature.

However, the cat and mouse game is largely successful due to the commitment of the actors and Liman’s skilled directing. At ninety minutes, the film moves along briskly even as it never changes location. I questioned the wisdom of a couple cuts to the sniper’s point of view – they really dissipated the tension – but otherwise, the editing brilliantly redirects our attention from the one soldier to the other, to the wall, to the corpses scattered around the pipeline, and to any possible location of the sniper. Liman knows precisely where to place the camera to achieve a balance between knowing what is happening and feeling just disoriented enough to share in the soldiers’ confusion and discomfort.

The Wall doesn’t make the most of its premise, but it gets enough out of it to be an engaging and thoughtful thriller with a worthwhile cross examination of the costs of invading Iraq, and Doug Liman proves his chops for directing action sequences once again.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Frequent obscene language, intense violence, including brief but graphic images of bullet wounds.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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